Dust-up in U.S. House Hearing over Bypass Mail

Rep. Darrell Issa, standing, chats with Alaska Congressman Don Young and Sen. Mark Begich before the hearing.
Rep. Darrell Issa, standing, chats with Alaska Congressman Don Young and Sen. Mark Begich before the hearing.

Alaska’s Bypass Mail system took some punches in Congress today. The chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee, Darrell Issa, is renewing his attack on the postal system that delivers everything from lettuce to lumber in rural Alaska. Alaska’s congressional delegation told him, essentially, to butt out. But Issa, who represents part of southern California, has staged some high-profile fights in his committee, and he seemed to enjoy taking on Sen. Mark Begich, and Congressman Don Young.

Issa is working on a bill he claims will reduce what the Postal Service loses on Bypass Mail, which last year hit $76 million.

“The subsidy means that every six years the American rate payer is buying a Bridge to Nowhere,” he said.

Surely he knew those are fighting words to Young, who was champion of that Ketchikan project. But Young was plenty riled already. Young says Bypass Mail actually saves the Postal Service money — maybe $200 million, he claims — because shippers deliver goods in thousand-pound lots directly to the airlines.

“Bypass mail, people don’t understand it. What it is is the products we were going to ship Parcel Post don’t go through the Post Office,” Young said. “That means you don’t need to build more postal buildings! It means you don’t have to hire any more people!”

He says the Bypass Mail system is working fine, and he accused Issa of meddling.

“There’s a $15 billion debt at the Post office and you’re worried about $70 million? That woulda cost 200? I don’t quite understand that. That’s what you call picking up peanuts when you’ve got a forest fire in your backyard. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Young said.

Issa also wants to allow three more carriers on the mainline routes for Bypass mail, out of Anchorage and Fairbanks. Competition on those routes is limited by a 2002 preference then-Sen. Ted Stevens pushed through that gives most of the mail business to airlines that provide a certain level of passenger service. Issa claims Stevens told him at the time he was trying to use Bypass Mail to subsidize passenger carriers. Young, in a testy exchange with Issa, insisted it was about efficiency.

“And you can’t have efficiency if you don’t haul passengers,” Young said.

“Ok it’s all about passengers,” Issa countered.

“No, it’s about efficiency!” Young said. “If you can’t have passengers you’ll not have efficiency!”

Sen. Begich told the chairman the carrier restrictions are also about safety. Issa wasn’t buying it.

“Are you saying that these other three carriers aren’t safe to carry milk, or vegetables or cans of coke?” Issa asked.

“I’m saying safety is part of the equation,” said Begich.

“What level of safety do you need for a can of coke?” Issa  said.

Begich refused the bait.

“Mr. Chairman I’m not going to go back and forth with you. Maybe you want to. I’ve seen how some of these hearings work … . I’m not going to go back and forth with you over the same argument,” Begich said. He pressed Issa to consider a Senate postal reform bill that he says takes a comprehensive approach to solving the Postal Service’s financial problems, rather than picking on one program.

Young, in a written statement to the committee, suggested Issa has been carrying water for a friend in the airline business. One airline that has fought to participate in the Bypass Mail program is Alaska Central Express. ACE Air Cargo is owned by the Donald R. Swortwood Trust. Mr. Swortwood is based in LaJolla, California and is a frequent contributor to Issa and his leadership PAC. An executive from ACE testified today it would be cheaper if freight-only carriers were allowed to carry a larger share of the mail.

Alaska’s senior U.S. senator, Lisa Murkowski, wasn’t at the hearing, but in written testimony she said the Bypass Mail program helps other federal department save money. It allows the USDA, for example, to more cheaply send emergency food aid to the Bush. She also said the incentive for mail carriers to transport passengers has meant 40 fewer communities in the state qualify for funding under the Essential Air Service program, saving the U.S. government millions of dollars.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her atlruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Lizhere.

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